The House Always Wins by Lon SAnders
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Four pairs of feet stomped across my verandah. I groaned. Scents of sweat and desire aroused my hunger. My walls ached in anticipation. Fools! Walk through that door and you enter my world, my rules. Don’t know what they are? Well, that’s the risk you take. I’d like to say enjoy the game. You won’t. But I will.
Four pairs of feet trudged up the rickety stairs and stomped onto the porch. The roof at one end had crumbled into a mess of lumber and vines, but the portico over the stairs, while mildewed and rotting in places, held strong.
“I’m having second thoughts about this, Roger,” said Margot, one hand twirling her ponytail in that nervous habit they all teased her about. She hung back from the others, one foot still on a step, as if ready to turn and run. “It looks even scarier up close.”
“Don’t be a wuss, Margot,” Roger turned and something inside the plastic bag he carried clinked. “It’s just a house.”
Another girl, her chestnut hair bouncing around her shoulders as she walked the length of the porch, leaned over the railing to peer around the corner of the house.
“Hey, Mark, come look at this,” Anna called. “There’s a busted-up greenhouse over here. It’d be perfect for you to grow your weed. Nobody’d think to look here.”
Mark trotted the length of the porch and leaned on the railing next to Anna. It gave slightly, and they both jumped back. Mark took Anna’s hand. “You better hold on to me, pretty lady. You seem to court danger.”
Anna cocked her head and blinked her eyes repeatedly. “And are you the big man who’s gonna keep me safe?”
“Um…you guys…,” Margot interrupted. She was pointing to the gate they’d just walked through. It was barely visible. “It’s weirdly dark over there. There’s a full moon tonight. It shouldn’t be so dark.”
“What are you, a fucking astronomer now, Margot?” Roger sneered. “Come on, let’s get inside. I need a drink.” Margot cast one more look at the gate, then walked to a nearby window. She cupped her hands around her eyes and peered inside as Roger moved to the door. Its weathered wood was splintered in a few places and splotched with various shades of faded ochre. One of the inlaid panels looked as if it had been attacked with an axe. But the door stood strong on its hinges and didn’t budge when he pushed on it.
“Did you seriously think you’d be able to just walk in?” Mark laughed, pushing the brim of his baseball cap up and looking around at the others. His laugh withered when no one joined in.
Margot shrieked and ducked below the window ledge. “Are you sure no one’s inside? I swear I just saw movement in there.”
“Man, I thought you were up for this.” Roger pulled from his bag a bottle of whisky and passed it to Mark. “This place has been abandoned for as long as I’ve lived in this shit-hole town. Here, have a swig. Maybe this’ll give you a little courage to face the big, bad house.” Each of the four took a turn at the bottle.
Margot looked through the window again. Moonlight shone on a piano and sofa, but the rest of the room lay in utter darkness. “I guess you’re right. It’s just…you know, the rumors, the disappearances, and…I don’t know…there’s furniture in there…the windows are unbroken…something just doesn’t seem right, that’s all.”
Roger took her hand and drew her away from the window. “They’re just that, Margot, rumors. Those people who disappeared probably just got the hell out of this town. I came by here yesterday to check things out. And the door was wide open. There’s this big entranceway, a couple of rooms off to either side, and one of those stairs like in Titanic. That’s all I saw…and I made it out alive!” He’d lowered his voice, leaned in close to Margot, then growled the last words before laughing.
Margot smiled but glanced back to where shadows now obscured the gate, then back to the window.
Anna rolled her eyes, then whispered to Mark, “I told you we shouldn’t have let her come with us. She’s such a downer.”
“Yeah…well, not always. And Roger likes her. Besides, she’s got the car. That means we can party as much as want.”
“Well, I’m not scared,” Anna said to the group. “Are we going in or not?”
“I’m not scared. It’s just weird.”
Anna giggled. Margot glared at her.
“Come on, Margot,” Roger held up the bottle. “I have two bottles of whiskey and a couple of joints. Let’s get this party started.”
He took another swig, then offered it to the others. Only Mark accepted. When the bottle was safely stowed again in the bag, the four gathered in front of the door and pushed hard. It creaked open.
“Whoa! What happened to this place?” Roger spun slowly in place, his mouth agape. “It’s beautiful!”
A candelabra sprinkled light onto a black and white parquet floor. Piano music and laughter wafted from a room off to the left, and a woman, whose gown sparkled under the candelabra's light shower, stood in the foyer, a glass of champagne held high. “Look everyone!” she called. “They’re here!”
Margot took in the ripped wallpaper and trash-strewn floor, then kicked aside a single sneaker someone had left behind. “Are you out of your mind, Roger? This place is a dump.”
The woman rushed to Roger, arms wide, a smile that exuded delight at seeing him. “We’ve been waiting for you since you stopped by yesterday! But what is that awful bag you’re carrying? Edward!” she turned to a man in a tuxedo who stepped out from the shadows. “Be a dear, Roger, and give this thing to Edward,” she said.
Roger held out his bag. “Here you go, Edward.”
“What? Whose Edward?” Mark said, holding out his hand to take the bag, which Roger just dropped to the floor. “Hey, man! What are you doing?” Mark yelled. A puddle had already formed and the sour smell of cheap whiskey filled the air. “They’re fucking broken!”
The woman hooked her arm through Roger’s and leaned in close. One leg, exposed from a slit that ran the length of her dress, rubbed against his. He grinned.
Roger had that shit-eating grin that Mark had seen so often before, but it was usually reserved for some girl he was trying to screw. It didn’t make sense in this situation.
“It’s not funny, man. That’s our entertainment for the night. We may as well go home now.” No one paid him a bit of attention. They were transfixed on Roger, who held out his arm as if escorting a prom date.
“Come with me, darling, there’s someone you absolutely must meet!” The woman guided him into another room.
Roger walked toward a room off to the left.
“Um…ok, I guess we’re going this way,” Margot said, glancing behind her to check if Anna and Mark were following.
“Welcome, young man,” said a man at the piano. He stood and grasped Roger’s hand in both of his and shook it vigorously. “And just look at those clothes, everyone. If I didn’t know better, I would think he was attending a costume party! But what in the world is he dressed as? Guesses, please!” The guests in the room laughed. Roger joined in.
“This is starting to freak me out,” Anna said when Roger walked directly to the piano, moonlight settling on its blanket of dust, then shook his hand up and down. A moment later, he laughed.
“And you brought your friends. We’re going to have so much fun tonight, aren’t we?” Piano man turned to the crowd and grinned.
“My friends?” Roger looked at the people assembled around the room. Their dresses and tuxedos dazzled him, but he was pretty sure they weren’t his friends. “I don’t know anybody here.”
“Well, I believe you have one friend here,” the man said. The woman in the sparkly dress rubbed her leg harder against Roger’s and draped one arm over his shoulder.
“Roger…” she whispered in his ear. He turned from the leering crowd. She pushed a leg between his and placed his hand on her breast. Its softness contrasted with the sharpness of the dress’ sequins. His moan of excitement floated through the crowd. They moaned in return.
“Hey Buddy, are you okay?” Roger was standing with his arm raised, his hand squeezing and kneading something that only he could see. Mark tried to push down Roger’s hand and turn him around, but his friend just lowered his head and stuck out his tongue, as if licking ice cream.
“Oh, Roger,…” she sang, swaying her hips against his. She ran her fingers through his hair and pressed his head down, encouraging him when he pushed her dress aside and ran his tongue along her cleavage before taking her nipple in his teeth.
“Well, two can play at that game, my little beast…” Her voice was gravelly and lustful. She grabbed his hair and pulled his head up, then traced her finger lightly along his chest, stopping at the edge of his sweat pants. Desire followed her finger all the way down.
“Why is it so dark in this room, you guys?” Margot said, as if oblivious to Roger’s antics. “I mean, the moonlight just seems to stop. How can it be so bright over the piano and so dark over there?”
“God, Margot. What’s up with you and the light?” Anna sneered. “Roger over here is acting bat-shit crazy, and all you can think about is the fucking light in the room?”
“Fuck off, Anna! You said it. It’s all an act. Ok, Roger, ha, ha, ha. You got us!” Margot said as she peered into the dark section of the room.
“I don’t know, Margot,” Mark said. “I don’t think he’s faking it. I think he’s tripping.”
The woman breathed a kiss across Roger’s lips, then stepped aside. Roger stood amid the watchful crowd. The moonlight spotlighted his erection.
“He’s game!” Piano man announced to the crowd. He opened his arms wide.“Let the entertainment begin.”
“Oh God,” Margot groaned at the bulge in Roger’s sweatpants spotlighted by the moonlight. “Your getting off on this, Roger? Look, I’ve had enough. Whether he’s tripping or not, I’m getting out of here. I’ll meet you in the car.”
“He must have taken something before we met up. What gives you hallucinations and an erection?” Mark laughed. “I want some.”
“I hate to say it, but Margot’s right. I’m going, too,” Anna said.
“Anna, don’t go,” Mark pleaded. “I need your help. Let’s sit him down on that couch thing.”
“No. Fucking. Way. I’m not going anywhere near him in that state,” Anna said.
“Let’s get more comfortable,” the woman said, drawing him onto the sofa.
“He sat down on the couch, just like you said,” Anna said. “Do you think he can hear us? Tell him to get up. See if he does it.”
Mark held out his hand. “Here Roger, let’s go. I’ll help you up.”
Roger reached out and pulled the woman into his lap. As she brushed his lips with hers, he moaned with pleasure. He shoved his tongue into her mouth and rubbed himself against her, grinding, thrusting, focused only on the growing fullness between his legs.
“Eww! Stop it. Let me go!” Mark tried to get away from Roger, who had pulled Mark into his lap and was trying to kiss him while pressing his erection against Mark’s leg.
“Get off me! Get off me! Anna! Get him off me, goddammit!”
“Mark! Something’s moving!”
The darkness Margot had been curious about oozed and billowed toward the sofa.
The woman pushed Roger against the back of the divan, then inched her fingers under the band of his sweat pants. He relaxed deeper into the divan, setting his arms along its back, moaning when her hand wrapped around his dick.
Mark pushed himself away when Roger let him go. Something black slipped over Roger’s arm, like a sleeve.
Roger’s arm began to burn. He tried to see why, but the woman was flicking the tip of his dick, rhythmically, squeezing, rubbing… He groaned. He grew harder, as hard as he’d ever been, energy, ecstasy surging with every flick. “Oh my god, I’m co--
“He’s ready,” the woman said. The crowd attacked.
Agony slammed into him.
Roger’s eyes sprang open. He saw Mark.
“Help me!” he wailed.
Piano man flipped his tuxedo tails and sat down, his fingers dancing across the piano keys.
Music exploded the silence. Mark and Anna shrieked in surprise.
The black ooze ripped open Roger’s neck, but before blood could spurt, it wrapped around the wound. Roger’s scream was muffled.
Anna’s was not.
The Black now covered Roger’s right side. Even as Mark reached to pull his friend away from whatever was attacking him, he noticed how odd it was to be able to see only half a person.
“Come on, Roger!” Mark begged, pulling at his friend’s leg.
A drop of the ooze leapt onto Mark’s hand. He screamed and dropped to his knees. “My God! Something bit me!” Three fingers hung loose, nearly ripped off.
The Black covered the rest of Roger’s body. Only his face was visible. Anna ran to Mark and tried pulling him away as the ooze slid inside Roger’s open mouth. His muffled screams turned to gurgles, then a hiccup, then nothing.
The music stopped. Blackness filled the space where Roger had been. Moonlight rested on the soft blanket of dust covering the now quiet piano.
“Mark, stand up! We have to get out of here.”
Margot ran into the room. “Guys, I can’t find a way out.”
“Help me get him up, Margot. We have to get out of this room.”
The two girls dragged Mark to his feet and to the door. “Where’s Roger?”
“I…He…I…,” Anna stuttered.
Piano man kissed the woman’s hand, then turned to the audience.
“A round of applause for our seductive beast and her tantalizing hunt.” The woman bowed; the crowd roared.
But, that, my dear friends, was just the opening act. You saw the quarry—and you had a little taste of one,” he winked as the crowd guffawed. “So, which of them is next? Step up and place your bets!”
They slammed the door behind them. Anna gulped in air, trying to calm her nerves.
“What happened in there? Why is Mark’s hand bleeding?”
“What do you care? You left us in there,” Anna could barely get the words out. Something seemed to be pressing on her chest, stopping her from breathing. “Oh my God! I think I’m having a heart attack.”
“You’re not having a heart attack. Get yourself under control or I’ll have to slap you out of your shock.” Margot smiled at the thought. She had taken the bow from her ponytail and was wrapping it around Mark’s hand, but blood had already soaked through the thin material and was dripping onto the floor.
“We have to get out of this house,” Anna said. “We have to get out of here! Where are we? How’d we get in this room? Where’s the door outside?”
They were in a library. Candles filled every corner with light, and the dark wood of the bookshelves, coupled with the mahogany tones of the carpet and curtains, exuded warmth, comfort, and an invitation to relax.
“That’s what I tried to tell you. When I left you guys, I ended up in a different room—not even this one—and I couldn’t find the foyer. I kept opening the door to find you guys, but, every time, I was in a different room. I’m not sure how I found you.”
“Well, you must have gotten twisted around. And us, too. We must have gone out through a different door.”
“Fine. You find the way out, Anna.” She jerked the knot of Mark’s bandage tight.
“Oww!” Mark wailed.
“None of this is possible,” Anna’s breath came in short gasps. “I need some air.”
She rushed to a wall of curtains and pulled them open, hands shaking, to reveal floor-to-ceiling French doors overlooking a moonlit verandah decorated with stone sculptures. The door swung open.
Margot guided Mark to the sofa, but he refused to sit on it. Instead, he plopped onto the floor and leaned against a wall. Margot set his injured hand on his lap.
“We’ll get you to a hospital, Mark. OK? You’re in shock but you’ll be ok.” Blood spread across his jeans where his hand rested. “Damn, your hand won’t stop bleeding. Anna, do you have anything I can use to make a tourniquet?… Anna? Anna!”
“She was over there,” Mark said, “by those curtains.”
“Typical Anna, to just leave without saying anything.”
“Anna wouldn’t leave us. She must be outside.”
“I’ll go find her. You okay now?”
“No, I’m not ok,” Mark whined, “Something tried to eat my finger and my hand is throbbing.” He noticed the flash of hurt that crossed Margot’s face. “Oh god! I’m sorry. Look, thank you. No, I’m not ok, but thank you for helping me.”
“That’s okay.” Margot patted his shoulder, then went to the French doors. The handle didn’t move. She put her face to a glass panel, hands around her eyes to block out the light.
“The door’s locked. I don’t see Anna, but there’s something dark moving around out there—”
“GET AWAY FROM THE DOOR!” Mark yelled. Margot instinctively leapt backward.
“That’s what got me…I mean…got my hand. The dark. Remember, you saw it. In the piano room. It…it…I know this sounds crazy, but…it bit me!”
“Right…, Um, Mark, I saw some shadows in a dark room. There weren’t any monsters. I don’t know what you think you saw, but…I think you’re just in shock.” She examined the handle and found a small lever, which she pushed before trying the handle again. The door swung open. She turned to Mark. “I’m gonna go see if Anna is outside.”
“Don’t go out there, Margot! Don’t leave me alone in here.”
Margot sighed, then stuck her head out the door. “That’s weird, there’s nothing out here. Look. The door opens onto a wall. It’s so dark.” She leaned out and craned her neck up. “I can’t see how tall it is…or how far down it goes.”
“Great, another weird thing to go with the hungry shadows and rooms that go nowhere.” Mark stood up.
“Who designs a house with French doors opening to a wall?” Margot asked. She reached out to touch the wall but pulled her hand away at the last moment. She was sure something inside the wall had moved toward her hand.
“Is Anna out there?” Mark asked.
“Gather round, ladies and gentlemen.” Piano man waved the crowd forward.
“Your bets are made, the stage is set,
“What’s in store for our little duet?
“Let’s play with them a little first,
“Then it’ll be time to quench our thirst.”
The crowd snickered.
“There’s nowhere for her to have gone, Mark. The wall’s— Did you hear that?”
“It sounded like people laughing. Like at a party.”
“Hello! Hello! Is someone there?” Margot called.
“It sounded like it was on the other side of this wall.” Margot grabbed a book and pressed it against the black wall. Before she knew it, she was jerked forward. Her arm sunk up to her elbow into the wall before she could pull it out.
Black goo, like congealed blood, covered her arm. Within the goo, maggots wriggled and squirmed.
“Get’em off! Get ‘em off!” she screamed, batting at her arm and grabbing a nearby curtain to wipe them off.
“What if Anna went out there?” Mark said when Margot had calmed down.
Margot looked at the maggots that writhed on the floor and curtain. She shivered. “I don’t know, Mark.”
“Knowing Anna, she found a way over the wall. Maybe she’s looking for the door to let us out.” Margot’s blank stare shut him up.
The crowd sniggered again.
They both glanced around the room.
Margot moved one foot near a lump of maggots. “You know, Mark, I never go out at night. My mom is sick, and I have to care for her when the caregiver goes home.”
“I said ‘no’ so many times that no one even asks me to go out anymore.” She lifted the sole of one shoe and slid her heel toward the maggots.
“But my mom’s sister is visiting right now. I heard you guys were coming out here and I asked Roger if I could go with you. I thought I could finally have some fun.” She lowered the tip of her shoe onto a few maggots and pressed down, hard.
“I thought I could have one night. One night of fun. That was all I wanted.” She lifted her foot.
“But this house,” she stomped on the maggots, “had to ruin even that!”
Oh, she has no idea, Piano man whispered.
“Not. Even. One. Fucking. Night!” She stomped on another pile of maggots. Mark took her hand.
“Margot, we’ll get out of here. Okay? And we’ll all go out again, to the fucking beach or something. As far away as we can from this place.”
“These things are real,” Margot said, looking at the white streaks on the wood floor. “We aren’t imagining them.” She wiped the bottom of her shoe on the carpet.
“No, we aren’t,” Mark said, holding up his hand. “Come on. If Anna isn’t outside, let’s go find where she went, then we’ll find a way out of here.”
With his good hand, Mark opened the door. They stepped through together.
Moonlight tumbled through a small window at the top of a wall. Mark and Margot stood in a bathroom, its floor littered with fallen tiles. Half a small sink hung on the wall, but the other half lay in pieces on the floor. Dominating the room was a clawfoot tub, its porcelain glowing in the moonlight.
The room was silent but for the drip, drip, drip of water leaking from the tub’s tap.
“This isn’t the way out,” Mark said. “Let’s just go.” He turned to the door they’d just walked through.
It was gone.
“No!” Mark howled and kicked a piece of the broken sink. It smashed into the wall and shattered.
“Ow!” Margot cried. A shard of porcelain had sliced her wrist.
“Oh God, I”m sorry! I’m so sorry!”
“Why’d you do that?”
“Because we can’t get out of this room, because—”
“What do you mean we can’t get out of this room? We were about to until you had a tantrum.”
“Margot! The fucking door is—-”
The door was just where it should be. “I…I…don’t understand…The door was…”
“It’s okay, Mark, you’re in shock. But now, I’m losing blood, too. We have to—Oh god, no!” She watched blood drip from her wrist onto the floor. But the floor was dry. Each drop was sucked up the moment it hit the floor.
Another sound appeared behind the drip, drip, drip.
“Do you hear that?” Mark asked.
“No…it sounds like breathing.”
A tile fell off the wall and smashed against the floor. They jumped.
Mark placed his hand on the spot from where the tile had fallen. The wall expanded; cool air swept passed his hand. The wall contracted; warm air brushed his palm.
“Margot,” Mark struggled to speak, “the walls are… br… breathing.”
“It’s drinking my blood.” She was fixated on the floor, watching her blood disappear, drip by drip.
Excitement flowed through the crowd.
“Let’s get out of here.”
“That’s impossible…I mean, houses don’t drink.”
They collectively sniggered. Their breathing quickened.
The walls moved faster. Another tile dropped to the floor.
Mark took Margot’s arm and drew her toward the door. “Let’s go.”
“No, not yet. We need to think, Mark. You say something bit you? Something got Roger?” She shook her arm, spraying blood on the floor. It was slurped up immediately. “What if it can smell our blood? What if it’s, like, hunting us?”
Mark shook his head, mouth slightly open, eyes wide.
“I have to wash my wrist.”
“No. Don’t touch anything, Margot. Let’s just get out of here.”
“I have to wash off the blood.” She opened the tap over the tub and stuck her hand in the stream of water. Blood colored the water pooling around the drain. More blood than she expected.
Margot’s scream pounded against the walls, knocking a few more tiles to the floor. Her hand was gone, her forearm had become a turgid stream of blood pouring into the tub. She struggled against the pull of the water but could feel her liquid hand and arm coursing through the pipes, drawing her down, down toward the drain, with it.
“Help! Help me!” she screamed, pushing against the tub with her free hand as her elbow liquified and flowed down the drain.
Mark hesitated a moment, then grabbed Margot around the waist. He put all his weight into pulling her away from the tub as if he were in a game of tug-of-war with him on the losing end. Margot’s shoulder had turned into a stream of bloody water, and her chest, a roiling, crimson mess. A drop fell from Margot’s chest onto his arm and began burrowing into his flesh. He looked down to see his skin liquifying, then…jumping, as if trying to leap into the tub. He let go of Margot to push the bottom of his t-shirt over it, pressing it down until the drilling feeling stopped. He looked up in time to see the rest of Margot form into a wave that cascaded into the tub. A gurgle echoed from the drain. Then, only the drip, drip, drip cut the silence.
And Mark’s whimpering.
His hand throbbed from the bite, and the spot on his arm, where the water had touched him, was on fire. Hyperventilating, he ran to the door, slipping on loose tiles. Another gurgle from the drain. He tore open the door and ran…
…outside. Into a garden. Rose bushes lined a stone pathway that led to the house and a verandah where Anna was walking among life-sized statues.
And now, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you tonight’s climax adventure. Will you hear declarations of love—booooooo!— or screams of terror—applause—? Will you be titillated by a gruesome fate for our star-crossed lovers, or will they make it out alive? Pull up a seat…ha, ha, ha…and get ready to eat!
“Anna! Anna! Over here!” Mark ran to her and up the steps. A pair of French doors stood open. Anna looked confused.
“What are you doing out there? You were…,” she turned to the house, then back to Mark.
“We looked for you! Margot and me—”
“Ugh! What did Margot do this time?”
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you. You weren’t outside. We looked for you—”
“Well, you must not have looked very hard. I’ve been out here the whole time.”
“Margot and me—we went into another room and we—”
“You mean you left without me? You left me out here?”
“SHUT UP! Just shut up and let me finish!” His head ached, and he wanted to slap her.
“We looked for you,” he continued, “none of this was there. Just a wall. And it tried to eat Margot’s arm,” he gulped, then the words flowed out of him, faster than he could control them, “so we went looking for that room we first saw when we entered the house, but, we were in a bathroom somehow and Margot…I don’t know, she, she, she disappeared. She turned to water and disappeared.”
Anna’s cheeks burned red. She glared at him.
“No one tells me to shut up. And I didn’t take you for a liar, Mark. I’ve been out here for, like, two minutes, so whatever you think you saw, you didn’t.”
Mark sighed. “Anna, look at my arm. What got her attacked me, too.”
Anna glared at him. “I can’t believe you left me out here. You at least have an excuse. You’re probably delirious from blood loss. But Margot? I’ll never forgive her. I’m going inside.”
“Margot’s—” Mark stopped trying to explain. He followed Anna. They passed statues of people in twisted and grotesque positions: a woman on her knees, head tilted back, mouth wide, eyes bulging; a man, his torso bent, head bowed, hands laced behind him like in a yoga pose; another man crawling. The verandah was full of them.
“We looked outside. None of this was out here.” Movement caught Mark’s eye. The kneeling statue was now standing. The crawling man reached one arm toward them.
“I’m so hungry,” the statue said.
“Anna, we need to get inside. NOW!”
But Anna was bent over a statue of a man seated on a sofa, his arms held out as if in an embrace. His mouth was open, but twisted to one side, as if hit by something heavy.
“It’s Roger,” she whispered, just as the statue turned its head to her.
“Hello, bitch!” he said.
Anna screamed, “Run! Around the house! To the front!”
They sprinted past the open French doors and around the corner. A branch whipped against Anna’s face. Mark tripped and fell.
“Ouch!” She rubbed the welt that burned her forehead. “Watch out for that branch.”
“It’s got my leg!” A vine from the greenhouse they’d joked about had wrapped around his ankle.
Anna pulled Mark free of the vine. “Hurry up! The front of the house is around the next corner!”
Except it wasn’t. They were in a garden of flowering plants that glowed under the moonlight.
“This should be the front of the house. We saw the greenhouse,” Anna said. Her voice was higher than usual. “The verandah should be—” She sniffed. “Do you smell that? It’s heavenly.” She stepped toward the flowers.
“Oh, no you don’t! You’re not getting anywhere near those things,” Mark grabbed her hand and yanked her back.
She looked up at him, eyes glazed. “Ow! Why’d you do that?”
“You were walking towards those flowers? One thing I’ve learned is don’t touch anything in this house.”
“I’m getting real fucking sick of this place. Come on.”
They ran around the next corner and were again at the verandah, where the sculptures had gathered around the open French doors.
Mark stopped in his tracks at the sight of the statues, but Anna pulled him forward, urging him to keep running. They took the next corner. Tangles of vines reached out from the greenhouse windows and doors as if the plants had expected their return. Barbed tendrils clawed at them, scratched their faces, and grabbed at their legs before the pair broke free. They ran around the next corner into the garden with the flowers.
“Ok, it’ll be the next corner,” Anna said as they gathered their breath, but she didn’t sound quite as certain as before.
“Anna, it’s clear we’re not going to be allowed to run to the front of the house.”
Anna’s chest heaved. Mark wiped away a streak of blood mixed with sweat.
“This can’t be happening,” Anna mumbled.
“It is happening, though. We don’t understand how, but something’s…I don’t know…Margot thought something's…hunting us.”
“Fuck you!” Anna screamed at the house. “Fuck you! You can’t get us. We’ll just stay outside until daylight you mother fucker!”
Mark shook his head no. He pointed behind her.
The flowers and vines had combined and formed into a writhing mass that slithered toward them like a knot of snakes, twisting around and through each other. Black ooze dripped from the flowers. The drops found each other, then congealed into claws that dug into the ground and dragged the mass forward.
Mark and Anna raced around the corner of the house again only to find themselves back in the sculpture garden.
“We can’t fight it, Anna.”
“Yes, we can. It’s not real, Mark. We can—”
“It’s not real? Not REAL?” Mark’s face contorted with rage. “LOOK AT MY HAND. LET ME TELL YOU, THIS IS FUCKING REAL. ROGER IS GONE. THAT’S REAL. MARGOT IS GONE. THAT’S REAL. THE BLOOD ON OUR FACES FROM THOSE PLANTS IS REAL!”
“I’m sorry, Mark,” Anna wrapped her arms around him and rested her head on his shoulder. “You’re right. It is real. But we have to find a way to fight it.”
“I don’t know how to fight this, Anna.”
“We’ll figure it out.” She looked around the sculpture garden. The sculptures had returned to their original places.
“That thing is coming, Mark.”
“It wants us to go inside,” Mark said. “The open doors, the statues not moving, and now the vines coming around the corner. It wants us inside.”
“Then we fight it. Come on. We’re not going to do what it wants.”
They ran around the corner again into…
…an empty room with a single, glass door. Moonlight cast odd shadows on otherwise plain walls.
“So. The house gets what it wants,” Mark said. He sounded defeated.
“No, it doesn’t. We’re not going to stop long enough for it to do anything.”
“Where are these shadows from? They’re on all the walls, but, there aren’t any windows.”
“You know things don’t make sense in this house. Come on, let’s keep moving,” Anna walked to the door and peered through the glass. “I see a light. Oh my God! Mark! It’s the door! The door to outside! And it’s open!”
She pulled open the door and raced into the next room. The door slammed shut. Lights flashed on, blinding her.
Pounding. Something was pounding behind her. Shielding her eyes from the light, she saw Mark banging on the door she’d just walked through. Just open the fucking door, Mark, she thought, but she went back and turned the handle. The door didn’t budge. She tried again, turning the handle harder. Nothing. She looked around the room for something to break the glass, but the room was empty. She slowly raised her eyes to Mark’s. His were teary.
They leaned into each other, foreheads separated only by the glass. The blood from Mark’s hand marked one side, her breath clouded the other.
“I’ll get help, Mark. Just hold on.”
Mark bit his lower lip, then nodded. He walked to the wall opposite the door and slumped to sitting. He smiled at her, raised his good hand in a wave, then leaned back and mouthed, “Go.”
Anna saw it before Mark understood what was happening. She screamed and banged her fists against the glass as the shadows on the wall converged to where Mark sat. The arms from one shadow reached out from the wall and encircled Mark’s chest. Another set of arms wrapped around his stomach, while yet another pair grabbed the sides of his head and face. Anna cried and screamed and kicked at the door as she watched the arms slowly pull Mark into the wall. His hand twitched, as if reaching out to her, but the shadows held him tight. His head and torso were the first to disappear, leaving his legs and feet sticking out of the wall and kicking wildly, his red Chuck Taylors like two cardinals trying to escape the clutches of a cat. The kicking stopped. The wall closed in on the brown soles of Mark’s shoes. A new shadow decorated the wall where he had been.
Anna spun around to race to the door, to escape.
She stopped cold. The door was gone.
No way in. No way out. She dropped to the floor.
A floor now piled with mutilated corpses.
The lights flickered, then went out.
I lay under the moonlight's caress and nestled into the calm satisfaction that comes after a successful feast. The game had been challenging, the players entertaining. I settled deeper into my foundation and prepared for sleep. Looking forward to the next game. I’ll be ready.
Lon Sanders lives in Delaware and spends much of their time lurking in graveyards, listening to the stories of the ghosts who reside there, and casting spells on people they really don’t like or trust.
Click here to listen to the Kaidankai podcast of this story.
“You’re not Mr. Mongo,” said Ms. Finch, nostrils flaring underneath a hooked nose. Her small daughter peeked out from behind her dress and stared at Mr. Carter with nebulous doe eyes.
“I know, Ms. Finch,” said Mr. Carter, “as I’ve said before, Mr. Mongo is out of commission now. He had to attend to family matters. The Pharmaceutical Board has asked me to fill in for him.”
“You don’t have a pharmacy of your own?” asked Ms. Finch in a way that Mr. Carter knew was bait for challenge. She did this every week.
“I’m afraid the Pharmaceutical Board had positioned me here. As I’ve explained before, my role as a floating pharmacist is necessary to fill in for temporary vacancies in our network. Otherwise, your local pharmacist would have to stay local, Ms. Finch.”
The answer never satisfied her. Instead, she held her hands to her hip, akimbo-style, looking like a flightless bird. Her daughter never broke eye contact with the new pharmacist. “Mr. Mongo knows my prescriptions.”
“Fear not,” said Mr. Carter, pointing to the rolodex behind the counter, “Mr. Mongo left me very detailed instructions on your prescriptions. Speaking of,” he slid a paper bag full of Ms. Finch’s pills across the counter, “I believe you’re all set. Thank you very much for coming to the pharmacy, Ms. Finch. I hope to see you next week for your pills.”
Mr. Carter clasped his hands behind his back, felt his muscles strain underneath his lab coat. He tilted to the left to show the little girl he was directly engaged with her and offered a little wave that did not return.
When she left Mr. Carter relaxed a bit and opened a small bag of cookies to calm his nerves. He had gone through the trouble to count Ms. Finch’s pills not twice but three times to extend an olive branch of good faith. Not that Mr. Carter was unused to this tension. Pharmacies are local affairs, a half-life of a collective intimate nature. What pills your neighbor takes for indigestion, what grotesque ailments are hiding under the sleeves of the favorite son, birth control for the cheerleader, etc. etc.. Mr. Carter knew his presence is already at a predisposition to be unliked, his first impression of the town is the files in Mr. Mongo’s rolodex, an entire collection of people dwindled into blood types, diagnosis, weights. Imagine walking up to someone you’ve never met and knowing that they know you have syphilis, or are incontinent, or struggle with debilitating diarrhea. Mr. Carter knows it’s not a good look.
Mr. Carter waved away Ms. Finch’s aggression like mosquitos at a picnic. He walked into the back room and he geared his attention to the bulbous thing in the corner, listened to its swelled stomach rise and fall underneath the tarp. It stirred in its harness and whimpered in pain. Mr. Carter raised a spindly finger to his lips and went shhhhhh.
The bell chimed and Mr. Carter entered his summons behind the counter. A miniature skyline of prescriptions rested on a honeycombed row behind his back. He watched Mr. James walk through the aisles, his hands in the pockets of his ratty denims, his fisherman’s vest dotted with little pin pricks. Mr. Carter already had his prescription ready: the weeks pills to combat his blood pressure and to counter his eczema.
Mr. James did give his honest best at not being uncomfortable in Mr. Carter’s presence. Small town folk do not like change. His lips were gifted with the natural cloak of a tinseled beard, but his thick brows, underneath the cap, moved like a dowser to anything that might be out of place. He gestured to a series of bottles next to the cash register.
“Mr. Mongo’s Fanciful Elixir. I don’t remember Mr. Mongo having these here before.”
“They’re new, Mr. James,” Mr. Carter said, taking a bottle from its egg carton shaped holder and placing it on the counter between them, right next to the bag of his prescriptions. “Mr. Mongo left me specific instructions to start offering them. It’s a tincture created by the man himself.”
Mr. James inspected the bottle. “Mr. Mongo vouches for this?”
“It’s got his name on it. He was meant to sell them this week and told me that a death in his family should not stop the roll out. He asked me to record any interest, but so far, no bottles have sold. Mr. James, perhaps you could be first to try Mr. Mongo’s Fanciful Elixir?”
Mr. James shook the bottle as if expecting pills. His strong brows weakened. “Well, if Mr. Mongo created it…what does it do?”
“It’s a cure-all. One sip in the morning, one sip at night. You’ll be twenty years younger.”
“Can I take it with my meds?”
“Of course, it’s merely supplementary. But it is with hope that you’ll find it more than supplementary,” Mr. Carter said, smiling.
“Why is there a picture of a bird on the bottle?”
Mr. Carter shrugged, “I asked the same thing. Apparently, Mr. Mongo likes birds. It’s a cuckoo bird, you know, like the clock. Oh, and do not give to children. If you see anyone giving it to a child, tell them it’s adults only.”
Mr. James left with Mr. Mongo’s Fanciful Elixir. No one else bought any of the tincture, but one was enough. It would be an avalanche before Mr. Carter knew it. A couple of days later Mrs. Coolidge entered the pharmacy, seeming to float as if on a Macy’s Day parade raft. She drifted from the boxes of tissues, aisles of candy, different kinds of band-aids, her jewelry jangling all the while. Mr. Carter had her prescription ready, but he knew, by her sudden change of disposition from last week, when she could hardly look at him, that she was not here just for her weekly dose of medications.
“Ah, what is this?” Mrs. Coolidge said, picking up Mr. Mongo’s Fanciful Elixir as if this was the first she had heard about it. She read the label aloud as if testing the words on her tongue.
Mr. Carter played along, allowed the woman her dignity. He knew that Mr. James attributed his sudden renewal of youthful energy to the tonic, and that he had done all the marketing that Mr. Carter needed in the pubs, drowning his liver in cheap whisky as if he were fresh out of the military again. Mr. Carter gave the pitch, offered it just as bashful as he had with Mr. James, and even tossed in Mr. James’s experiences to establish ethos. With the idea firmly planted in her head that the decision to purchase the tincture was her own, Madame Coolidge left the store with a skip in her step.
The townsfolk came in like a leaky faucet; often one at a time, when the store was near closing or just opening. When more of the townsfolk started to accidentally bump into one another at the other side of Mr. Carter’s counter like two lily pads they pretended to only pick up their medication and be on their way, winking at Mr. Carter as he placed the bottle of Mr. Mongo’s Fanciful Elixir in the lunch bag of their medicine, each person fully confident that their secret obsession with the elixir was their own little dance with the new pharmacist. Two weeks later the stigma got out and people started to speak freely of the tonic, half in nostalgia for Mr. Mongo himself who had still managed to supply the community even in his absence, and half because, for all their collective agreement, the tonic worked. Mr. Maroney claimed that he no longer needed glasses. A wound from a welding accident healed almost instantaneously for Mr. McGolrick. A serious case of poison ivy in indecent spots on Mrs. Fois’s body disappeared within two days. Mr. Mongo’s Fanciful Elixir was quite the catch.
The children appeared to be immune to the mania surrounding this new supplement. Whenever they would come into the store they would gaze at Mr. Carter cautiously, sometimes so obvious in their staring that they would be chastised and promptly told to apologize to Mr. Carter, who waved the awkwardness away. Mr. Carter never was that adept with children. They always seemed to keep their distance from him, always hiding from behind the barrier of an adult. Mr. Carter understood. Pharmacies are not very children friendly places, even when he offered them candy.
One day Mrs. Tannin walked into the pharmacy and, after some welcoming conversation with Mr. Carter, asked outright for a bottle of the tincture. No more shame in buying the strange medication. She claimed that it gave her red hair a youthful buoyance and her daily walks around the town square have graduated into jogs.
“I apologize, Mrs. Tannin,” said Mr. Carter, “but it appears we are all sold out of the Mr. Mongo’s Fanciful Elixir.”
“But Mr. Carter, you always have the tonic!” She started to glance around the store, never keeping eye contact.
“Fear not,” Mr. Carter drew his lips into a smile, “There will be more tomorrow. Mr. Mongo is shipping them via mail.”
“Mr. Mongo probably has loads of the tonic at his disposal.”
“When is he coming back? Not that we don’t all love you here in our little town, and all.”
Mr. Carter winked. “No offense at all, Mrs. Tannis. It’s my job to fill in for the local pharmacists and be on my way. As for Mr. Mongo’s return, he did call ahead and told me he is going to extend his trip another two weeks. Looks like you are stuck with me.”
With that Mrs. Tannis left the shop, but only after Mr. Carter promised to hold two bottles for her purchase when the new cache arrived. He waited patiently for her exit, and after waiting several moments floated to the front door and switched the sign to CLOSED. The sky had turned purple over the little town, the streetlights flashing cones of yellow on the cobblestoned sidewalks, the itchy piles of raked leaves. He drifted back behind the counter and pulled out a collection of empty pill bottles, each marked with the same Mr. Mongo’s Fanciful Elixir graphic. He went into the back room, navigating through the extra stocks of toiletries, snacks, shampoo, etc..
He reached blindly for the string and tugged it, ensconcing the supply closet with dim yellow light that moved like a pendulum, an orb of yellow swinging left-right left-right. The thing stirred awake. Mr. Carter held the door open with his foot and maneuvered the empty pill bottles onto a stainless-steel table.
The thing lay on a tarp, it’s elephant-like feet, swollen and sweaty. It groaned and wheezed, expelling noxious fumes from its pores.
“Now now, Mr. Mongo,” said Mr. Carter, putting on a lab coat and a surgical mask and goggles he’d bought from Mr. White’s hardware store just off Elm. He picked up a scalpel. “You’re much needed now.”
With two delicate fingers Mr. Carter unsheathed the bedsheet covering the hulking figure and tossed it aside. The thing had plumped and fermented. At first it was above the average BMI for a Human male in its late fifties, but Mr. Carter’s paralytic agents had pickled its organs, swelling its belly to give the impression of a Human female about to breed. A bulging cyst connected its chin and its cervix with veiny, spongey material, like a frog mid-croak. Pustules lined its swollen and grey flesh, a legion of mayonnaise surprises. Repopped and reformed blisters flake and crust like craters on its ankles, crystallizing it to the tarp. Parts of a lab coat, found in the same closet that Mr. Carter had found the one he wore now, had fused together like little sunspots on its ballooning torso. Trails of urine and shit were tinted red with blood and cascaded down cavernous and scabby ridge-legs, pooling in between its fused together toes. A semblance of a face looks at Mr. Carter, the phantom muscles of a now fallen off nose twisting and crusting with snot, the head attempting to turn to its best ears of which both have near failed and sunken into its jellyfish scalp, so its movements mimic a metronome. The thing blinked its sunken eyes, furrowed the remains of its brows. It groaned and creaked and wheezed. It stopped trying to flee from its restraints, which have grown into its flesh like the bark of an adaptive tree.
With surgical precision Mr. Carter sliced the pustules, opening the gelatinous sacks like a zipper. A thin, viscous liquid dotted with river stones of calcified bacteria floated in the current and into the funnel, filling up a large plastic bin at the edge of the tarp. Once one of the sores ceased providing its milk Mr. Carter targeted the neighboring crusty pustules on his thigh, slicing the bulbous pockets, filling up the container until he had several gallons worth. The thing stirred but did not fight him. Then Mr. Carter heaved the heavy container onto the table and took a smaller funnel and began to strain the excrement into the empty bottles labeled Mr. Mongo’s Fanciful Elixir.
The next day Mr. Carter had sold almost the entire new batch of the tincture, and before the week was over, he had struggled to keep up with the demands. The townsfolk’s appeal had increased to a near zeal. Mr. James looked ten years younger. Mr. Conner was able to swim across the lake and back again. Arthritis was no longer a problem for Ms. Leann. The people have come to love Mr. Carter as well, bringing him gifts. Each townsperson thought Mr. Carter squirreled away a bottle just for them.
One day Mr. Carter was giving Ms. Rosa a bottle of Mr. Mongo’s Fanciful Elixir (one of the last batches before he had to stop milking the thing in the backroom for a couple of days to let the utters reform). She brought her son in tow along with a box of freshly baked cookies. The boy kept his distance, keeping several paces away from the counter, his little toddler body half obscured by a rack of different flavors of ChapStick. When Mr. Carter and he locked eyes over Ms. Rosa’s shoulder he flummoxed and jumped behind the rack, attempting to obscure himself completely. Ms. Rosa noticed this and jumped in embarrassment, apologizing to Mr. Carter for her son’s behavior and summoning him from his concealment. The kid slopped forward, grabbing at her pantlegs, his lip starting to tremble.
“He’s just shy,” she said, placing the tincture in her purse. She said to her son, “This is just Mr. Carter, filling in for Mr. Mongo. You remember Mr. Mongo, right? You liked Mr. Mongo.”
The kid nodded.
“I’m a friend of Mr. Mongo, but he’ll be back soon,” Mr. Carter reassured.
“But hopefully not too soon,” Ms. Rosa winked at Mr. Carter, and gestured to the bottles, pointing them out to her son, “Mr. Carter is even helping Mr. Mongo sell his new tincture. Remember how good it made you feel yesterday?”
Mr. Carter’s smile dropped. He locked eyes with the kid and then recouped himself when Ms. Rosa made to wave goodbye.
“Wait,” Mr. Carter said, careful not to overreact, “did you say that your son had some of the tonic?”
“Indeed,” said Ms. Rosa, “he had cough and a headache, and I thought, well, I could always pick up another bottle for myself since you always keep a bottle handy for me. You liked it, didn’t you son?”
The boy’s eyes were wide and absent, like a caught fish. Placidly, he shook his head.
“It’s not meant for children, Ms. Rosa. It says so on the bottle.”
At once the boy started to cry, as if someone had jammed a battery into him. He buried his reddened face into his mother’s pant leg again, keeping both eyes sealed shut and away from Mr. Carter’s put-upon smile. With the crying kid now juggled in her arms like a paper bag full of groceries, she made her way out of the pharmacy, chiming the bell as she left. Mr. Carter’s smile kept as long as it could. Then, with a slam of the door, his face crumbled and twisted and something underneath his flesh writhed like an eel, bulging just above his brow before receding. He escaped into the backroom and fumbled for the light string before shutting the door.
The thing stirred and attempted to lurch. Sunspots of blood and mucus encrusted it to the chair. Little flabs of blisters looked like used condoms on its swelled, hulking frame. Mr. Carter could not tell where the chair and the restraints started or ended. Surrounding the thing was a castle of gifts from the locals who had become so enamored with how Mr. Carter made them feel; boxes of pastries, knick-knacks, handmade scarves. These material Human items surrounded the leaking blob like a dragon’s hoard.
“More more more,” hissed Mr. Carter to the thing, “produce more! Who knows how many children have seen my face.”
The thing opened its lips like a fish gasping for air. When it spoke, the voice came from deep inside its stomach, vocals produced through layers of ulcered insides filled with chthonic murk. “No…more…”
“You need more to make more,” Mr. Carter said, moving now to the back of the room where he kept his fertilizers, his paralytic agents, his sweeteners.
He created a tonic in a blender and then attached it via a bedside drip and catheter, poking the blade into the thing’s spongy flesh, exhuming a smell of rotting vegetables. His concoction was malleable; he had slipped some in the thing’s tea one night after a long day of writing prescriptions; its eyes had gone weary with age and Mr. Carter can move quite fast when someone’s back is turned. Now with the thing as an incubator, Mr. Carter needed only to wait a day. He can close the shop early and spend the rest of next afternoon restocking on Mr. Mongo’s Fanciful Elixir. Then he will fall back into the grace of the town. They won’t listen to the children, especially if it’s only that one spawn of Ms. Rosa’s. The little gremlin can cower and point at Mr. Carter all he wants, but children have active imaginations. This lie had protected him before.
Mr. Carter sold the remaining few of the concoction in the first half of the day, as planned. He had little gift bags and gift cards and hand-knitted scarves to show for it. He was staying in the things old abode, just above the pharmacy, and in these last couple of months he had not needed to leave the building at all, entirely subsisting on such gifts. Mr. Carter did not sleep, so with his hands folded behind his back, he stared out at the main street of the little town. But now, as the daylight was turning purple and orange Mr. Carter found himself strangely alert to some electric presence.
A police officer, clad in a brown fur down jacket, walked into the shop holding a bundle of papers in one hand and a resting the other on his belt buckle. His face was stern and monolithic, his chin carved from granite. Mr. Carter had not seen the man before. He introduced himself as Officer Smith.
“You must be Mr. Carter, taking over for Mr. Mongo.”
“Mr. Mongo had taken leave. I’m here to cover until his return.”
“Where did he go?”
“He had family matters to attend to.”
“He didn’t tell you where he was leaving to?”
Mr. Carter shook his head. “Mr. Mongo and I aren’t close. We are more like colleagues. We belong to the same board.”
Officer Smith looked Mr. Carter up and down. “Where you from, Mr. Carter?”
“A couple towns over,” he said, “but as a floater for the Pharmaceutical Board I spend my time wherever I’m needed. Us floaters are few, so I am always on the move.”
“And this board, you have a license for it?”
“I’d like to see it.”
“It’s in the back. One moment. Have a free tonic while you wait. The town loves them. A dietary health supplement.”
The officer shook his head and twisted his face underneath his beard. “I usually stick with aspirin.”
“Are you sure, Officer Smith? They are quite popular.”
“No thank you, Mr. Carter.”
Mr. Carter’s hand had readied to unpack the bottle and slide it over. It would have been easier for the officer to drink the tonic. It would have been easier for everyone. He went to the backroom, to find the thing tensing on its throne. He rummaged through a series of well-kept documents, pulling out the forged Board license. He walked out and showed it to the officer, knowing that his knowledge of pharmaceutical machinations is lacking, and that any artefact of proof is proof enough itself. Officer Smith handed back the identification and looked Mr. Carter up and down again. With a steely, connecting gaze, he slid the ream of papers in his hands over the counter, spreading them apart.
“Do you recognize these, Mr. Carter?”
Mr. Carter looked down at the spread pages. Various drawings in marker or crayon or pastels illustrated what appeared to be a giant bug, its scale twice as large as the ill-proportioned renditions of the children themselves, all with uneven x’s over their eyes. The bug monster had many arms and a great thorax that shimmered like a drop of oil on water. Large mandibles positioned underneath a hundred eyes. He had to stop himself from unraveling at seeing a self-portrait. The problem had gotten worse than he thought. Children do not like Mr. Carter, but they can never place why. Mr. Carter had to restrain himself. Why, oh why, did the parents give them Mr. Mongo’s Fanciful Elixir? It was for adults. The lettering said so. Don’t they trust doctors?
“There was a school assignment the other day. Kids were tasked to draw a local figurehead. Being a small town, we have a lot of repeat options. The librarian, the butcher. I always use this assignment to visit the schools and teach them about stranger danger, D.A.R.E., things like that. I like seeing the pictures that the children draw of me. I hang them up in my office every year. This year we knew there would be no Mr. Mongo, but what we didn’t expect was to see you as drawings, Mr. Carter.” He gestured to the drawings. “Can you explain why they all look like this? Like monsters?”
Mr. Carter twisted his face, adopting features that he had practiced many times before in the sewage crusted mirrors of his actual abode. “Children can be cruel.”
The officer did not buy Mr. Carter’s façade. “How can all the children describe you like this?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know, officer.”
The officer gathered the papers and stuffed them in some pocket within his jacket. “I’m keeping an eye on your practice, Mr. Carter.”
“I hope you keep an eye on everyone,” Mr. Carter could not stop himself, “the town needs someone with your diligence. Care to take Mr. Mongo’s Fanciful Elixir for the road, just to see how it makes you feel?”
The officer shook his head and left without another word. He’s a hard sell. Usually the more suspicious types are not the first ones to partake in Mr. Carter’s altering elixir, but they usually come around when it is presented with ethos (Mr. Mongo’s name a magic spell of security for the town, an easily exploitable pressure point on the collective psyche), and peer pressure (eventually the tide of influence wins over and Mr. Carter can feel confident that he will suck the town like an orange, even with the more stubborn folks who have resisted outside pressures). But this is not the same. With the officer not taking the medicine and the children somehow being served the tonic after being specifically told not to, Mr. Carter found himself in dire straits. The children not only can see his real face, which never had threatened him, but now in their stupid gremlin socializations they have corroborated in a way that only a small town can propagate.
Mr. Carter knew how to solve this. He returned to the backroom, patted the cuckoo on the head, and put on his smock. The thing was withered before him, like a drained orange, the juice sucked out. Small pustules had replaced the once large and viscous bulges, and the swelling on its crater-stricken body had deflated, leaving flabs of slimy blubber. At its most productive the thing’s neck fused with its collar bone with intersecting flakes of crust and pus, but now it looked more and more like a skeleton wearing the flesh of a larger creature. Mr. Carter milked as much as he could, dispersing the bottles accordingly and only managing half a new batch of Mr. Mongo’s Fanciful Elixir.
“More, damn you,” Mr. Carter said, his voice rising to a crescendo.
He needed more of the tincture to make the town on his side, to make them addicted to Mr. Carter, to make them want to care for him. It was not like this in Ms. Iris’s town before this, or Mr. Polter’s town, before her. Then again, their towns never had a sheriff who never took medication, never needed this much of the euphoric social conditioner that has since dried up from the thing’s open, scabby sores. He needed more. Trying to pull the tincture from the thing was like drawing sap, and after an hour of lapping up each drop, the thing stirred and raised its head, its neck ripping like a torn balloon, shining underneath the exposed pendulum bulb.
In one final act of defiance, the thing wheezed no … more … before folding into itself and releasing a noxious gas upon death.
Mr. Carter stared at the limp thing, a mound of meat and blubbery flesh. Particles of flaked skin fell off it like dandruff and it had the dry quality of a mottled and vacant wasp’s nest. Mr. Carter clenched his fists, unable to comprehend, for the first time in his existence, the possibility of a cow unable to produce milk. With half of the bottles filled, Mr. Carter resigned to putting them on display. Something was better than nothing.
Soon enough Mr. Carter discovered that he could not keep up with demand. The townsfolk came and went, taking a bottle of Mr. Mongo’s Fanciful Elixir with them. Mr. Carter counted the bottles as they went, checking with each exit chime if the thing was conscious enough to produce more tincture, disappointed each time that it had degraded more and more, turning from a swollen fleshy mass to a brittle caved in gingerbread house. The dryness of its skin informed Mr. Carter enough that he was running out of time.
The final bottle was sold, and Mr. Carter submitted to his loss. He had tried his best to make his place in the community, but the logistics were not there. He gathered his belongings, which were not much, and made his way down to the pharmacy floor to take any extra lab coats he might have left behind and some heartburn medications for when he would have to eat some bum at the bus station. He was reaching for a bottle when the bell chimed, revealing several of the townsfolk at the door, their eyes blinking and shaking, some with children at their heels, cowering at the sight of Mr. Carter.
“I’m sorry folks,” Mr. Carter said, “but we are closing early today.”
Ms. Finch wrinkled her nose. “Surely you must have another bottle of Mr. Mongo’s Fanciful Elixir.”
“Or two,” said Mr. James.
Mr. Carter shook his head, gesturing to the vacancies near the register. Already he was looking over the crowd, thinking who he could bring to the back and inject with a sedative for a quick bite. All he needed was one more…one more.
The crowd had become irate now. They pushed forward amidst themselves, amidst the tugging of their children who wailed like sirens. More chimes signified a growing crowd akin to slime mold, and Mr. Carter took all his willpower not to scream and fight against the threshes.
“Where is the tonic?” Said Mr. McGolrick.
“I’m sorry, I-”
“It makes me feel so young,” said Ms. Rosa.
“No, momma, no!” said Ms. Rosa’s spawn.
“It cures everything, Mr. Carter. Everything,” wept Mr. James.
“Please, don’t go!” yelled another kid.
The crowd started to converge, moving closer to the counter, beginning to press against the register. Mr. Carter kept his stance, knowing that herds needed to be culled. It was their psychology. He stared at the children, hoping to use his many eyes that only they can see to break their fragile psyches enough to dispel some of the crowd. The mob clawed at Mr. Carter, their eyes mad with fervency, their jowls trembling with unsatisfied addiction. They groped now like zombies, pushing against the racks, grabbing at the hems of Mr. Carter’s lab coats. Then, splicing through the chaos, the chime of a bell sliced through the air, and all the heads ignored the new entry, the additional organism to the growing mold.
Above the symphony of crying children and grabbing parents, Officer Smith jaunted over and without a word raised his pistol and yelled something about being a fucking pedo and
and Mr. Carter stumbled into the racks behind him, the prescriptions of the townsfolk falling from the shelves like raindrops, capsules opening like little pebbles. A blossom of ichor sprouted from his chest, spouting tar like tendrils that grabbed onto any surface for purchase, pulling him to a stand. And Mr. Carter yelled and Gorgotha, the Queen of the Cuckoos dislodged its jaw and screeched with enough acoustic force to shatter the windows of the pharmacy into diamond dust. Medicinal spittle flung from the rim of its dislodged jaw, showering the townsfolk. The officer’s hat blew out of the exposed window and he cocked for another bullet, his eyes widened with terror as Gorgotha’s knife-like hands crawled out of the mouth of its fleshy costume in a series of bending joints and clicks. The remains of Mr. Carter slumped down like a discarded dress and Gorgotha stared at the children hiding behind the hems of their parents who have become so obsessed with Mr. Mongo’s Fanciful Elixir that they had not noticed the Cuckoo Queen standing before them, its many arms outstretched, waiting to be worshipped. Its large carapace was covered in pustules and craters of popped blisters. Mandibles drooled and the saliva collected at a puddle at its paleolithic feet. The adults hopped over the counter and began to bend down at the puddle, dipping their tongues onto the carpet like a litter of pups fighting for a single tit.
“Not for children,” screeched Gorgotha, each eye focusing on a different child. It twisted it large head. “I am the child. You are stopping them from taking care of me.”
Gorgotha reached for the collection of schoolkids now clustered by racks full of band aids and toothbrushes with a skeletal, insectile hand. Officer Smith shot the pistol again, blasting Gorgotha’s arm into a painful angle that made her roar, causing the adults entangled over its drool to bleed from their ears. It stumbled backwards, picked up Mr. James and Ms. Finch by the hems of their shirts, and tossed them over the counter.
“Protect me. Protect your god.”
They stood and started to reach towards the children, who were being pulled back by the Officer Smith, his pistol cocked again.
Mr. James said, “All we want is Mr. Mongo’s Fanciful Elixir, children.”
Ms. Finch added, “Don’t you see what a mockery you’ve made of Mr. Carter? He’s only trying his best. You should be embarrassed of yourselves.”
The officer fired into the crowd, careful to aim the bullet directly at Gorgotha’s armored brows. He gathered the children behind him and in one motion opened the door and ran out with them in tow, the cluster of schoolkids packing into the police car that had not stopped running. With the children and officer out of the pharmacy, Mr. James and Ms. Finch returned to the sopping puddle of Gorgotha’s saliva. Gorgotha watched the police car disappear down the street. It could not chase after the vehicle; two blocks down her body will weaken, its proximity to the pharmacy and the worship instilled in it severed. Instead, it slumped to the back room, its large body squeezing through the doorframe. Already it was getting weak, its worshipers of the euphoria from Mr. Mongo’s Fanciful Elixir now beginning to pile into the room. They were nonplussed by Gorgotha’s revealed form, still referring to it as Mr. Carter, so exact was their attention that the brittle remains of the thing’s form did not bother them, that the truth of it all failed to leverage against the possibility for more of the addicting elixir.
Queen Gorgotha folded its many jointed arms into its skeletal carapace. She bowed her head as the mob screamed more more MORE! and began to claw at her hardened exterior, their tongues out to lap any spittle from its wretched mouth. A hundred arachnid eyes realized that their addiction would cause the destruction of its nest. When this happens, Gorgotha will starve. She must feed while she can. It will get her to the next town, and she can start over. Maybe.
Mr. Carter looked in the mirror. His stomach was bloated, and his skin was grey and sagging like a melted candle. He dusted a loose feather from his lab coat, his fingers brushing over the crust of dried blood and bone. He shambled over the broken bodies of the townsfolk and rested on the chair where the incubator had become as crisp as a cracker and hollowed out. Mr. Carter sat in the putrid back room, his eyes bulging, his head feeling like it was going to pop. Eating the meat was not enough to sustain him. He needed worship, and there was no one left in the small town. He had thought that the officer would take the children someplace safe and return with more people that he could influence, but the officer never returned, closing the door on the small town behind him and locking Mr. Carter behind for good.
Slowly Mr. Carter started to rock in the chair, his skin feeling a little too tight, each arm folded like a paper crane underneath the simulacrum of a Human.
And it began to weep: “Who will love me now?”
Glenn Dungan is currently based in Brooklyn, NYC. He exists within a Venn-diagram of urban design, sociology, and good stories. When not obsessing about one of those three, he can be found at a park drinking black coffee and listening to podcasts about murder. For more of his work, see his website: whereisglennnow.com or following his on Instagram: whereisglennnow.
Dear Madeline by Christian Riley
Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai podcast.
My sweet Madeline. Remember when we first met out upon the campus quad? October 3rd, 1994, and that steel-drum band was playing up on the walkway in front of the bookstore, overlooking the dancing hippies below. You had on that purple dress, I remember. How could I forget? It fit you nice and tight, was perfect against your red hair. I fell in love with you, Madeline, right at that moment. Under the clanging melody of that band and the soft autumn breeze as it sifted through your gorgeous locks. I simply fell in love.
That was over twenty years now, and I’m still just as in love with you, my dear wife. Oh Lord, this is much harder than I thought it would be.
I made a big mistake, Madeline. I really messed up this time, and I won’t be able to get things right. I can’t. I’m sorry, as I should have listened to you. I should have stayed home, or at the very least taken you with me. But now, it’s all over Madeline. We’re all over. You, me—hell, the entire world!
You might think I’ve gone and lost my mind Madeline, but I swear to you, every bit of this letter is the truth. The whole damn truth! Of course, right now, I suppose, you must be elated after finally hearing from me, since it’s been about two weeks now that I’ve disappeared. But I didn’t leave you, Madeline, truly I didn’t. I just went missing, that’s all. And now I have a chance to explain things to you, with this letter they’ve granted me.
You know how this all started, of course: when I went trekking down here to the Apache National Forest, by myself. Never go anywhere alone, son! I heard my mother’s words of wisdom scream into my ear when I first stepped into this cave I’ve found. I heard both her and you Madeline, hollering at me to turn back, not to be a fool.
But I was a fool, Madeline, and that’s why I’m here now—away from you and the rest of the world, lost in the wilderness, and with… them.
If you’re not doing so already, please have a seat, Madeline. Again, you’re gonna think I’ve flipped my gourd, and, with me disappearing, that this letter is, perhaps, just the culmination of twenty years of secret resentment that I’ve kept bottled up until now. That maybe this letter is twenty years of private, seething hatred all spilt down onto a sheet of paper to spite you, Madeline.
No. Nothing could be further from the truth, my love. I haven’t lost my mind—well, not yet at least. And this is no joke, either. It’s the real deal, and I’ve pinched myself a thousand times today already, just to make sure that I haven’t been living in a very long and cruel nightmare these past few weeks. So sit down, Madeline. Sit down on that mahogany chair your grandmother gave us for our ten-year anniversary, ‘cause it’s got some well-built legs on it. And as much as I hate doing this to you Madeline, as much as this here letter might send you into a trembling fit of agony, well, I just have to.
It all started when I discovered this cave. I figured there’d be some old Apache jars or arrowheads in here. No big deal, right? Just another cave. One of hundreds I’ve explored already since I’ve started collecting artifacts.
I didn’t see them at first. This cave is big; much bigger than I’d originally expected. There were a couple drop-offs just inside, which took me down several feet, and then into an enormous cavern, so high that the beam from my flashlight couldn’t even reach the end. More’s the pity, I suppose. If it did, I would have seen them hanging up there in the darkness. Maybe I’d be home with you right now, Madeline, clueless as to what is about to come, but happy nonetheless.
Anyway, I couldn’t see much past my light, so I kept going. I heard the sound of trickling water and figured that to be as good a destination as any other. Several long yards, and then I came upon a small pool, the same one I am sitting in right now.
I had spotted some strange tracks near this pool, so I shined my flashlight down to have a better look. And that’s when they grabbed me, Madeline.
I fought them with a passion. My mind raced straight to you—to us—and I tore into these creatures with all my strength, and then some. Believe me, I did. But they were too strong, Madeline. Too strong, and too many. And so I failed.
Oh, but don’t worry, my love, they haven’t hurt me. Well, not really, I suppose. Although I’ve certainly changed Madeline. I’ve changed so much that you wouldn’t even recognize me anymore. I’m one of them now.
My mind hasn’t yet crossed this barrier, though. I still think of myself as a human. I haven’t quite adopted their collective reasoning yet, but they told me that this is normal.
Oh, but my body sure is hideous, Madeline. I look like a six-foot tall bat, with long hair trailing to the ground, a pair of wings shaded deep purple that when opened, stretch out nearly ten feet, and then my eyes; my eyes are red, Madeline! Red eyes!
Certain movies refer to us as Mothmen, but I don’t think you should watch them, Madeline. It just might be too painful. The legends, on the other hand, aren’t quite as scary.
It’s said that the Mothman is a type of entity who is often seen prior to a horrible event, where numerous people end up dying. And because of this, it is thought that this “Mothman” is a harbinger of death. Some people even believe that he is Death.
But that’s not how it actually works, Madeline. Well, not really. I suppose you can consider us as “harbingers” of some sort, but we don’t bring death to people, Madeline. We collect it.
That’s right. We collect death. Collect the souls, the spirits of those who perish. It’s not always the case when a few people die, or just one person, of course. But when there’s a catastrophe, or really bad accident and a bunch of folks get wiped out because of it, we need to be there, Madeline. We need to be there, because in death, humans are as slow-minded and dull-witted as they are in life. And when there’s a bunch of them who get killed at the same time, they get all foggy in the head, Madeline. They get all confused with which way to go, and there’s only a certain amount of time before the window closes, and then after that, well… ghosts, Madeline.
Crazy, huh? But it gets worse, my dear wife. Much worse.
Normally, these Mothmen would have vanished when I came into this cave. They’ve got the ability to do that, and they’ve assured me that when my body has completed its “transformation” process, that I too will be able to become invisible. Anyway, normally they would have disappeared once they heard my footsteps at the entrance, but the truth is; they need me Madeline. They will need me, at least. And here is where this letter’s probably gonna hit you the hardest, my love. It’s gonna blind-side you, that’s for sure.
Do you remember that show we watched a few months back, about Nostradamus, and those crackpots preaching about the end of the world? We’d been eating nachos, drinking beer, and then we laughed until our bellies ached. Well—it’s all true, Madeline. It’s really gonna happen this time. They’ve told me so. And although I’m not exactly sure how it’s gonna play itself out, and neither are they, but it’s gonna be horrible, Madeline. Just Horrible. A comet hurtling into the earth, or invasion from an alien race bent on wiping the planet clean of life. Perhaps even a terrible virus. But it’s gonna happen, Madeline. It’s gonna happen real soon, actually, as they’ve known about it for quite some time now.
I know. Why am I telling you this?
It’s because I love you, Madeline. And my god, I can’t stand the thought of you getting “lost” when the end comes. They’ve told me that when a person becomes a ghost, it’s like living in hell. Stuck in a crack within dimensions, the spirit doesn’t know what to do, so it just “replays” those events prior to its death, over and over again, for all of eternity! Hell on Earth, Madeline, that’s what it is. What it becomes, at least, when you’re a ghost.
And when the end comes, which will be very, very soon now, I assure you, it’ll be pure chaos, Madeline. Chaos; where millions upon millions of souls shall flutter about, lost for certain, and there’s only so many of us, and we’re gonna have our hands full, and I won’t be able to find you unless you’re at home, waiting for all of this, Madeline.
That’s right, my dear. This is what I’m asking of you now. Aside from a desperate goodbye, this letter means to assure your safety, Madeline. My love for you is all that I have anymore, so please Madeline—please stay home. Quit your job, sell the boat, cash in the IRA accounts; do whatever you have to do, but just do it. Stock up on food, and if you have to go anywhere—which I’m begging that you don’t—then for the love of God, make it quick, woman.
The end is gonna be really bad, Madeline. It’ll most likely terrify you. But remember; regardless of how terrifying things become, nothing can compare to the effects of getting lost. So please, Madeline, stay home.
I’ve always hated goodbyes, Madeline. You’ve known this. I can see you in my mind, right now, sitting in that mahogany chair in the living room, reading this letter you’ve just found sticking out from underneath the coffee pot. In shock, of course, but I’m sure you’re broken hearted as well, knowing that these are my last remaining words to you. Who knows, maybe you’re also relieved in a way.
But here it is anyway: goodbye, Madeline. I hope you take comfort in knowing that I’ve always loved you, ever since that first day I spotted you on the quad, with your lovely hair and purple dress. And I hope you’ll smile right now, knowing that to my eyes, and my heart, nothing rivals your beauty. And finally, Madeline, I hope you take peace knowing that when it all comes down, in the end, with the fire and brimstone raining havoc over the entire world, that I’ll be soaring home for you, my dear wife. I’ll be flying in to capture your baffled spirit, so that I may take you up, up, up and away, to a much better place.
I’m coming home, honey, so just sit tight. Sit tight, and know that forever and always, I shall love you, Madeline. My sweet Madeline.
Chris Riley lives near Sacramento, California, vowing one day to move back to the Pacific Northwest. In the meantime, he teaches special education, writes cool stories, and hides from the blasting heat for six months of the year. He has had over 100 short stories published in various magazines and anthologies, and across various genres. He is the author of the literary suspense novels The Sinking of the Angie Piper (Coffeetown Press, 2017) and The Broken Pines (forthcoming), and his debut short story collection of weird fiction is pending publication with Mount Abraxas Press. For more information, go to www.chrisrileyauthor.com.
The Shrine by Robert Pettus
Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai podcast.
Percy’s 1990 Volvo shook and sputtered laboriously as it made its way up one of the many winding hills of Bloomfield road. It wasn’t late, but it was dark. The overhanging trees blackened the road to the point that only the yellow lines were visible through the wobbling headlights. Two tall, cylindrical speakers sat duct-taped to the dash – bulky, white Hewlett-Packards we had secretively stolen from the high-school computer lab. They weren’t great, but they were far better than the Volvo’s stock speakers. Plus, they had an auxiliary chord that could connect to the Zune – our prized music-playing device.
Percy scrolled through his collection of music – one hand on the wheel, the other on the Zune – as the car swerved across the middle lane and back to the right side of the road. He finally settled on Smashing Pumpkins. Cracked through the better, though still imperfect HP speakers, Billy Corgan’s voice rang through the Volvo, out the windows, and into the otherwise silent night. We sang along with him: “Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a… CAAAAAGGGGGGGE!”
The Volvo made it to the top of one hill where we would instantly see the next, each one curving into a wooded holler, as if part of a themed ride at an amusement park. The central Kentucky knobs, undisturbed and nearly uninhabited, are dark enough to hold ancient, sleeping secrets.
We were on our way to The Shrine – a religious monument atop one of these hills. No one knew why it was there – we definitely didn’t, at least – it was just a place the local kids liked to go to kill time and scare one another. A wooden set of stairs led up the hill to a rustic sanctuary at its summit. A few rows of brittle, makeshift pews lined the top, leading to an icon of Mary, standing high above the pews atop a pillar of stacked stone plucked from the creek below. An abandoned mobile home lay halfway up the hill – a dystopian-looking side-attraction on the way to the more classic horror of The Shrine itself. Kids at school made up stories about the mobile home. They said some crazy-fucker murdered his pregnant wife there, and that’s why The Shrine was built atop the hill – as a place to pray for the souls of mother and baby. It was a bizarre place.
Percy skidded the Volvo into the gravel parking lot, stopped abruptly, and wrenched open the squeaking door.
“Well, let’s fucking go, Ed,” he said. He sounded confident – or at least intentionally trying to sound confident – but his voice cracked slightly.
Percy ripped the speakers from the dash before exiting the vehicle and shoved them into his backpack. Metallica’s “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” shouted at us through Percy’s zipped backpack. The music was muffled, as if trapped inside, trying to escape.
We walked to the base of the stairs.
The first few steps creaked under our weight. Small lanterns featuring Catholic iconography of Mary lined each side of the stairway. The candles, unused in who could guess how long, were unlit, and some of the makeshift stained glass encasing the lanterns was cracked – scars across the face of the virgin mother.
Before making it to the top of the first part of the stairway, we noticed some headlights. Another car was pulling into the lot.
“Fuck,” said Percy, “I wonder who that could be?”
Smoke unfurled like a forest fire from the now opening car doors, lifting high into the cold air before merging into the gathering fog.
“Let’s go, pussies!” said one of the voices from the car. Two of the other doors opened. There were two boys and one girl.
“God dammit,” I said, “That’s Lance and Philip. I don’t know who’s with them, probably Jasmine. She’s dating Lance, I think.”
Lance and Philip were two kids from school – seniors. They were gigantic dicks.
Percy had already hopped over the ledge of the stairway onto the forest floor below.
“Come on, dude!” he whispered aggressively, “Let’s fucking go!” He was nodding toward the trailer.
“I’m not going there, dude.”
“Dude…” responded Percy, “There’s nothing in there. It’s either go there, or deal with Lance and Philip, which – considering Lance has his lady here – probably won’t be good for us. He’ll want to impress her, or whatever; he’ll be on some serious bullshit, that’s for sure. So will Philip, wanting to impress Lance.”
Percy was right. I lunged over the railing and followed him up the hill and through the woods, to the abandoned mobile home.
Lance, Philip, and Jasmine were in no hurry to ascend the stairway. They even seemed a little frightened, themselves, from what I could hear through my frantic scamper up the hillside.
“Did you hear that?” said Philip, “Sounded like something running up the hill! What the fuck was that?”
“Stop being such a little bitch,” said Lance. It was probably a squirrel. Those things sound as big as a deer when they’re running through piles of dry leaves. Let’s go!”
Lance hopped dramatically onto the foot of the first stair – clutching the railing to intentionally shake and sway the entirety of the brittle old stairway, as if to emphasize his nonchalance.
“What’s this?” he said, terror filling his voice, “What the fuck is this? Something is shaking the stairs! I can’t move!” Lance fell to the floor, flailing spasmodically. He then lay in opossum-like motionlessness for some time. Suddenly springing into animated wakefulness, he started laughing, pointing at Philip.
“Let’s go, you goddamn pussy!” He then barreled up the stairs, Philip and Jasmine following timidly behind.
Percy and I made it up to the mobile home. It sat on weathered, buckling stilts against the slope of the hill, its fortifications shoved deep into the damp mud of the earth. The shutters, a strange, dark shade of purple, were crooked and asymmetrical – some of them had fallen to the ground and were now buried by years of dirt and plant matter. A wooden staircase, not at all dissimilar to the one leading up to The Shrine, led from the hillside to the rickety storm door of the trailer. The door banged periodically against the house as the wind blew.
Wanting to create as little noise as possible, Percy avoided that trap in favor of the underbelly of the house. I followed him with the anxious pace of an inexperienced private trailing his staff sergeant through a warzone, not thinking anything of the creeping darkness living below the trailer until well-settled within. Sinking into the moldy, clay-like goop of the sun-deprived interior, I crouched to hide, turning back toward the staircase leading to The Shrine. Lance and his retinue were now making their way up more quickly. Philip and Jasmine seemed even to have shed their previous fear. I looked at Percy, who was now, for some reason, examining an ancient push lawn mower partially wedged in the mud.
“Look at this shit!” whispered Percy, “It’s still perfectly good! I bet there’s all sorts of shit inside we could take out and sell! Maybe we could make enough for some real speakers for the Volvo! Some nice ones! Those bastards are nearly up to The Shrine, anyway! They can’t hear us! Let’s go check it out!”
Before I could express my disagreement, Percy stepped hurriedly back toward the wooden steps leading to the front door. Before making it out from within the intestines of the place, he accidentally kicked an old glass beer bottle encased in the mud. It clanked loudly against the old stairs. Lance, Philip, and Jasmine’s footsteps ceased.
“ ‘ the fuck was that?” said Philip.
“Who knows” responded Lance, “probably just a stray cat. Let’s go check it out!”
“Dude!” said Philip, “I don’t think that’s such a good idea. There was another car in the parking lot, remember? It could be some weirdos, some freaks in there doing god knows what. Fucking smack-heads or some shit.”
“Whatever,” said Lance, “I’ll go it alone. You’re such a little bitch, Philip.”
Lance hopped the railing of the stairwell to the hillside, leaves crunching under his weight.
“I’m not going there!” said Jasmine, “You two go, and I’ll stay here! Fuck that shit!”
Philip, not wanting to waste his chance to remove himself from the expedition, responded, “You can’t stay here by yourself! I’ll stay with you, just in case.”
“Jesus!” yelled Lance turning back toward them, his voice now ironically carrying up the hill to the stone-stacked monument to the messiah’s mother. “I guess I have to do everything myself!” Lance barreled off in the direction of the trailer.
“Fuck!” I whispered, looking to Percy for an idea. He didn’t immediately provide me with one, so I repeated my concern: “Fuck!”
“Shit!” Percy responded in agreement, “Let’s go! Follow me! Percy then sprinted up the stairs into the trailer. I followed him, clumsily kicking remnants of trash–artifacts from a previous time–creating even more unnatural sounds. Lance quickened his pace, his footsteps reverberating around the natural, spherical wall of the forest canopy.
We made it inside – though not unheard and likely not unseen. Lance followed like a famished, rabid coyote. He wasn’t far behind us; he had long legs. He was fast.
Upon entering the trailer, we bolted through the still-furnished living room into the bedroom on the far-end of the place – the side furthest from the stairwell leading up to The Shrine. A box spring, underneath a mattress, lay on the floor. Diving behind it – on the side furthest the entrance to the room – we laid down and made ourselves as small as possible, trying to shield our bodies from Lance’s future field of vision.
He entered the trailer, slamming shut the creaking door. “Helloooooooo!” he said gaily, walking briefly into the living room before turning away and heading into the kitchen. He opened the kitchen windows, looking outside in Philip and Jasmine’s direction.
“Hey Philip, Hey babe!” he said, “It’s not so bad in here! You all should come check it out!”
Jasmine and Philip both yelled something in response, but I was unable to hear it. Lance couldn’t either. He kept screaming from the kitchen window on the far side of the trailer, telling them to repeat themselves. Eventually, he shut the window and turned back into the living room. He sat on the couch. I could hear it squeaking and buckling under his weight. A rat scurried out from underneath. Lance leapt up, crashing hard against the back wall of the trailer.
“What the fuck!” he screamed in fear before falling back down, laughing at his own jumpiness. “Fucking rats,” he concluded.
He got up from the couch and walked into to the bedroom. “Hmm,” he said, “I wonder what was making all that noise I heard outside. It couldn’t have been the rat… Rats can be pretty noisy, but not that noisy.”
He walked around the room. He whipped open the closet opposite the bed. Nothing there. He jumped onto the mattress and leaned over the side– his face was right next to ours.
“Well, what’s this? It looks like it is two more rats! Two big ones! This goddamn place is infested! Good thing I have a passion for extermination! I’ll even do it for free!”
Grabbing and ripping our shirts, he yanked us up and dragged us out of the trailer. Neither of us could keep our balance. Percy fell twice, and each time Lance berated him for his lack of balance; each time Percy’s shirt ripped further. Lance just tore the whole thing off, pushing Percy, shirtless, through the front door. Once outside, he pulled Percy backward by his backpack – as if nocking a bow – and then shoved him down the stairs into the mud. I avoided that fate by dislodging myself from his grasp and running down the stairs of my own accord.
“Look what I found!” Lance yelled to Philip and Jasmine, “two big-ass dirty rats!”
“That’s fucking gross,” said Jasmine, still unable to see us, “don’t bring those things over here!”
“Oh, I’m bringing them!” said Lance.
Coming into their field of vision, Philip began laughing hysterically.
“What the fuck are you two dumbasses doing here?” he said. “What were you two doing in that trailer, huh? I’ll bet I can guess!”
“And you would guess correctly!” said Lance, “I found them together in the bedroom! There’s still a mattress in that place! It’s dirty as hell! Bedbugs all over it, I’m sure! You two boys are fucking nasty!”
There was no escape, I knew that. We were to be Lance’s entertainment – his punching bags – until he tired of us.
We continued up the stairs toward the shrine. Percy and I led the way, shoved forward by Lance or Philip, who had at this point joined in, too, feeling, I guess, that we presnted no danger. He was unnaturally sweaty, even though it was a breezy evening, and smelled like ass. At one point, I tripped, bruising my shin against the splintery stairs. Philip crouched to my level and spewed his rancid, Grizzly-Wintergreen-soaked breath into my face.
“You need to walk better than that, little man! Don’t trip me up! I’m not going to be happy if your clumsiness trips me up!”
He spit dip onto my pants and then shoved me forward. I fell again. The lanterns, depicting the Queen of Heaven, shook in quiet protest. We were nearly to the summit of the knob – nearly to The Shrine.
When we reached the top, Philip dragged me past the three rows of makeshift pews, and threw me down before the stone altar. Lance did the same to Percy, who fell on his back. His Zune came to life and a muffled “Decades,” by Joy Division, provided background music as Lance and Philip stood over us.
“What are you going to do to them, anyway?” asked Jasmine, sitting in the back row on one of the wobbly old benches. “Is there any point to all of this? Like, I know they’re two little shitheads, but still… Isn’t this kind of a waste of time? It’s ruining The Shrine for me. This place is supposed to be scary, right? I must say, boys – so far I’m just bored!” She pulled a Newport Green from her pack and lit it, spitting out the menthol smoke in frustration.
“Of course, there’s a point!” Lance snapped. “These two little bastards need to stop thinking they can hide in the bushes and avoid us! It’s disrespectful! They need to be taught some manners! A simple hello! That’s all I wanted! Don’t just run away, am I right?” Lance looked to Philip, “Am I right, Phil?”
“Uh, yeah!” he responded, confused, “let’s teach these little fuckers some manners!”
Percy and I were at the foot of the altar. Not in a traditional kneeling prayer-stance, though. We were cowering, covering our heads with our hands as if in preparation for a tornado. The ghostly keys and priestly vocals of Joy Division continued:
“…Here are the young men, the weight on their shoulders; here are the young men, well where have they been? We knocked on the doors of Hell's darker chamber. Pushed to the limit, we dragged ourselves in…”
My forehead felt the cold moss of the stone. Looking up, I watched the face of Mary in the portrait sitting atop the altar shift from her usual compassion into a darker, more demented look. Her eyes went from calming and round to deep-black and blade-like. Her mouth twisted into a curving grin, showing needle-pointed, serpentine fangs. She looked like she could inhale the soul of any unfortunate onlooker.
“Hello, there, young boys!” came a jovial voice from behind us.
Jasmine turned and shrieked, falling off the rickety bench to the damp dirt below. Lance and Philip turned as well. Even Percy and I – trying our best to obey our orders – couldn’t help but turn around. There was an elderly woman, at least eighty, standing just beyond the row of pews. She had apparently just walked up, though not from the path. She seemed to have come out of the woods. She was pregnant. She squatted down, barely able to walk. How a woman of that age – much less a pregnant woman of that age – could scale the entirety of the knob, especially through the wood, was beyond me. It simply wasn’t possible. She fell to her knees and unleashed a cackling laugh.
“I think it’s time!” she said, gripping her abdomen in clearly excruciating, though seemingly pleasant pain.
She fell to the earth, her back against the ground, and closed her eyes. Climbing out of her more quickly than humanly possible crawled a baby.
Pink and wet, it clutched at the dirt – like a primate grasping for a tree branch – and grabbed a handful, tasting it before looking up to the stone altar. When it saw Lance and Philip standing at the altar’s head, the child shrieked in otherworldly anger, shaking the trees and causing a bevy of doves to take flight in retreat. The newborn creature grew – within the space of only several seconds – from its previous wriggling form into a stature greater than that of Lance or Philip. Its face, at first new, shifted quickly into a leathery, eldritch hardness. After swelling to the height of a tall man, its legs continued their weed-like growth, spurring the totality of the beast’s height to nearly ten feet. Still unfamiliar with walking, it wobbled clumsily toward the altar like a pair of vulnerable young trees during a thunderstorm.
Jasmine screamed, crab walking backward on the ground, back to the barbed-wire fence lining the backside of The Shrine – leading from the top of the knob onto a neighboring cow field. Philip swallowed his dip then wretched, dropping onto his knees and vomiting into the dirt. This irritated the newborn creature. Inadvisably darting forward, it crashed through the old, brittle pews and tripped hard into Philip, crushing him against the stone of The Shrine. The demon creature lifted Philip as though he were a living twig and slung him backward, toward the old trailer, into the trees. We heard him rolling through the leaves down the knob. He was no louder than a squirrel, or a rat.
Lance cowered backward into the stone altar, gripping its chilled surface.
“Whaa… what?” he squealed. The creature lifted him, held him over the shrine and split him in half like crunchy, stale bread. Lance’s blood spilled over the statue of the Virgin Mother – over Percy and me. It drenched my shirt. It soaked Percy’s still bare back. Looking up through the red rain, I saw the statue of Mary standing regally atop her rock mound, grinning insanely before retreating into her usual, sublime stare.
The creature dissolved into the dirt, which, upon closer examination, I realized was stained crimson. The ground encircling The Shrine was soaked with blood. But too much for just this particular satanic incident. I felt like I was standing in the blood spilled from numerous, similar encounters.
The old woman again cackled. She stood, gripping her still split-open body. She laughed continuously as she walked back into the woods, in the direction of the trailer, leaving a trail of blood in her wake.
Robert Pettus is an English as a Second Language teacher at the University of Cincinnati. Previously, he taught for four years in a combination of rural Thailand and Moscow, Russia. He was most recently accepted for publication at The Horror Tree, White Enso, White Cat Publications, Short-Story.me, Savage Planet, Tall Tale TV, The Corner Bar, A Thin Line of Anxiety, Schlock, Black Petals, Inscape Literary Journal of Morehead State University, Yellow Mama, Apocalypse-Confidential, Mystery Tribune, Blood Moon Rising, and The Green Shoes Sanctuary.
Published on the Kaidankai on October 5, 2022.
Linda Gould hosts the Kaidankai, a weekly blog and podcast of fiction read out loud that explores the entire world of ghosts and the supernatural. The stories are touching, scary, gruesome, funny, and heartwarming. New episodes every Wednesday.